Thanks so much to everyone who's been kind enough to leave a review for me so far. I know the style of this story is a bit different, and that's actually on purpose. Please continue to review – I really want as much feedback as you can supply on this, even if it's just to point out things you like – many of you have told me that you have no negatives to speak of, and I'm glad for that. I don't mind negative feedback, so long as it's given in a spirit of being helpful and not hateful. Harsh reviews are fine; it's useless reviews that I can do without. But anywho…

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto!

Chapter 3: I Like What I See...

Tsubaki had a horrible, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Something terrible had happened; the only time that the Hokage summoned a shinobi or kunoichi's next of kin to their office was when the ninja in question had been hurt, raped or killed. When she had arrived at the Hokage's office, she knocked on the door.

"Enter," she heard Tsunade's voice from the other side. She opened the door and entered. To her surprise, Ibara was there as well…and she looked upset.

"Tsubaki Kenpi?" asked Tsunade, wanting to confirm her identity.

"That's right, Lady Hokage," Tsubaki responded.

Tsunade closed her eyes and sighed, "You'll want to sit down for this. Trust me."

Tsubaki immediately felt a lump rise in her throat as she took the seat Tsunade indicated for her. Tsunade proceeded to explain what had transpired, and that Tsubaki and Ibara's daughters had been killed in action. Apparently there was no next of kin for either their third Genin teammate or the Jounin sensei, this explaining why only Tsubaki and Ibara were there.

Tsubaki was in shock, with Ibara doing little better. Kasumi and Ami's first C-ranked mission had been mislabeled; Kasumi and Ami's Genin team had been commissioned to take down a simple group of bandits that had been terrorizing a town. They were told that it was a particularly lusty group of men, therefore an all-female team had been requested.

The mission was simple: infiltrate, seduce to distract, and eliminate. It seemed an easy enough task, except for the fact that the village hiring the team left out one important detail: a Jounin rogue-ninja from the Hidden Mist was leading the group. The Jounin Sensei of Kasumi's team was a rookie Jounin, while the rogue-ninja was a veteran Jounin. The difference in their skills could not have been more pronounced.

The bodies of all four kunoichi had been recovered after Tsunade sent Team Kurenai, with Kakashi Hatake as backup, out for search and retrieval. The rogue-ninja even gave Kakashi a hard time, but was eventually dispatched. When the bodies were found, they had long since been killed…and defiled in numerous ways, except for the jounin, who'd been kept alive by the rogue ninja as a plaything, but not before having her legs amputated at the knee, and her arms amputated at the elbow.

Once Kakashi and Team Kurenai arrived, the rogue Jounin had gutted the Jounin sensei…just so she could die slowly and give a report of what had been done to her and her team first in case he didn't make it out alive, himself. She told them every gruesome detail of what had happened: what the men had done to them, how they had used and abused them for their own wanton desires, how Natsuri, Kasumi and Ami's teammate, had been the only one of her students to put up any kind of struggle, and how only Natsuri had worked to find a way out of the situation they were in before she was done in by these ruthless men. She told them all of this before expiring slowly and painfully from blood loss. Tsubaki and Ibara knew what this meant: of the three Genin, only Natsuri dealt with the situation as a true kunoichi.

The bodies of their comrades had just been returned to the village, and were being prepared for burial. While they were being transported back to the village by Kurenai and her team, Kakashi went to the hiring village to find the mission contractor so that he could figure out what happened. He found out that they honestly didn't know about the rogue Jounin that led the group; they'd never seen him. This tragedy was the simple result of honest mistakes and insufficient intel.

"Ladies, please…if there's anything you need, or if there's anything I can do for either of you, please don't hesitate to call on me, okay?" Tsunade offered, hoping to provide what comfort she could for the grieving mothers.

Ibara simply sat there, silent tears flowing down her cheeks, her teeth gritted together in anguish. Tsubaki shed silent tears as well, hanging her head. Tsubaki began to mutter while slowly shaking her head back and forth, "I told them…I told them…"

Ibara looked at her former friend and snapped, "What are you talking about?"

Not even bothering to look up, Tsubaki answered the question in a slow, numb monotone, "I told them that they needed to train more. I told them that their training was all they would have to fall back on in the field…" her voice broke as she continued, "…I told them that something like this could happen, but they didn't listen to me," her cries became quietly vocal as she finished. Ibara only looked on in anger at Tsubaki's words.

"I told them…" Tsubaki continued, "…that their prince wasn't going to come in and save the day, and that they needed to train and stop treating this like some kind of game…"

"Or maybe they should have depended on him to come and rescue them instead?" Ibara snapped angrily, finally losing her cool as her own voice broke, "Except he's out on a training trip so he couldn't be here to protect our daughters, now, could he?"

Tsubaki, on impulse, stood up, and drummed the other woman hard across the face, knocking her out of her seat, "Don't you dare blame Naruto for something that he had no fault in! The only ones to blame for this are the men who killed them. But as hard as this is for you to accept, and as cruel as it might sound, the fact of the matter is that Kasumi and Ami should never have been kunoichi to begin with! They were Uchiha-fangirls in the Academy, and they never grew out of that! This would have happened eventually anyway, so stop looking for someone to blame! And don't you ever use Naruto Uzumaki as a scapegoat in my presence again! Do you understand me?"

Holding her hand to her reddened cheek, Ibara looked at her former friend in shock, before her shock turned to anger. She was about to retort and retaliate before Tsunade interjected, "Ibara!"

Ibara turned to the Hokage, who continued, "I agree with Tsubaki, quite frankly. And while I do sympathize with the fact that your life's just been turned upside down, I will not sit idly by and allow you to slander one of my best shinobi! Take it from someone who knows: if you don't change your perspective, and if you don't find the strength to take proper responsibility for yourself, you'll end up bitter, old and alone, with nothing but regrets. Now, if there's nothing that you need at the moment, please leave. If you need anything else, my door is open to you…starting tomorrow."

Tsunade looked at Ibara very pointedly, letting her know in no uncertain terms that any further outbursts on her part would not be tolerated. Ibara collected herself, narrowed her eyes into a glare, and left without another word.

Once she was gone, Tsunade looked at Tsubaki, genuinely impressed with how she stood up for Naruto; she hadn't known a lot of people who would do such a thing in the village since she had taken the reins as Hokage. Following this, she let out a frustrated sigh, "Barely a month has gone by since he left, and already people are forgetting all Naruto's done for them."

Tsubaki simply turned her gaze back to Tsunade and explained, "That's not it, Lady Tsunade; Ibara's always hated Naruto, just because seeing him reminds her of the fact that she lost her husband in the Nine-Tails Attack."

"Well, that explains her animosity," Tsunade remarked.

Tsubaki shook her head in disagreement, "No…it's just her excuse. The truth is that she's just not a kind or compassionate person; she never was. She's one of those people who need somebody to blame, and Naruto's burden gives her an easy target. I lost my husband that night just like she did. Both of us were left widowed with infant daughters at thirteen years old. We were both Chunin, and we had to resign from active duty so we could be home with our children, so in a sense, we lost our careers that night, too…but none of that is Naruto's fault. I'm ashamed to say that I once shared her point of view…until I actually saw who he was behind the goofy façade he puts up."

Tsunade's eyes narrowed curiously, "Really? What did you see?"

Tsubaki recollected the tale of how she saw Naruto on the tire swing as the only student in the Academy who didn't graduate with his class, and how at first, she only saw him as the boy who had the fox in him. She shared about how she looked him in the eye, only to see feelings and emotions that she knew quite well. She then shared about how her view changed the more she saw him around and observed him.

Tsunade smiled at Tsubaki's accounts of Naruto. Even Tsunade herself had to let Naruto grow on her, and it took Naruto standing up to protect her on both a broken leg and a torn quadricep; this woman simply saw something real in Naruto's eyes before she started changing her opinion of him for the better.

"Lady Tsunade?" Tsubaki asked suddenly, "I would like to request a skills evaluation so I can return to active duty."

Tsunade frowned in surprise, "Tsubaki, are you sure that's such a good idea, right now? I mean, you're going to need some time to grieve."

"I believe it would be helpful to me, Lady Hokage. My only child is gone, and while I will take the time to grieve…" Tsubaki's voice began to break as the tears started to flow, "…I want to be of use. I need to keep going, and moving forward. I always wanted to be a medical ninja."

"Really?" Tsunade asked as she leaned forward to listen closely, now quite interested in the woman's request.

"Yes, ma'am," replied Tsubaki enthusiastically, "You were always my hero in the Academy. I had to write a report about a great Konoha ninja as one of my assignments, and I chose you. I always thought that your proposal to put a medical ninja on every ninja squad was a brilliant idea, and I always wished that it would have been implemented."

Tsunade, now even more impressed, responded, "Wow! It's not often I meet someone your age who actually knows of that proposal. Do you still wish to learn medical ninjutsu?"

"Very much, milady," Tsubaki responded.

"Alright then," Tsunade said with a smile, "In exactly two weeks' time, I'll evaluate your skills myself and determine what rank you'll be given. You can report here at eight AM, and I'll take you to a training ground. I'll also make arrangements for you to begin training in medical ninjutsu. In the meantime, please…grieve for your lost child, and if you need anything, please feel free to come to me…even if it's just to go out and have a drink."

Tsubaki smiled gratefully and bowed to the older blonde, "Thank you, Lady Tsunade. There's a good chance that I'll do just that."

Tsunade smiled and nodded. Both of them said their goodbyes and Tsubaki left the office to go home and grieve the loss of Kasumi and Ami.

Tsubaki and Tsunade had gone out for drinks together several times. Tsubaki would talk, and sometimes cry, while Tsunade would offer what comfort she could. A small funeral service was held for the team that had recently been lost. Tsubaki and Ibara didn't have anything to say to each other, as both were too upset. Several of Kasumi and Ami's classmates and former classmates attended the funeral, including most of the Rookie Nine. Many condolences were offered, and both parents walked away from the service feeling comforted and cared for.

After the funeral, Tsubaki threw herself into preparing for her evaluation. When the time came around, Tsunade evaluated her overall skills, and allowed her to return to active duty at her previous rank of Chunin. Instead of the typical housewife's garb she was known to wear, she could now usually be seen in standard Chunin attire: green flak-vest, black shirt and pants, though she chose to go with skin-tight, form-fitting variations of the outfit, black ninja sandals, and a black headband that she wore around her waist as a belt. Her conditioning was now plain for all to see – muscles in all the right places, just enough to make her own curves a little more prominent. While she was always slender, she now looked quite fit. Throwing herself into her work, she requested missions immediately upon being processed back into the shinobi program.

In addition to receiving standard field missions, Tsubaki threw herself into training, both in the medical field and her other skills. She found that her chakra was aligned primarily to water, and so began chakra nature training exercises to learn to better control water. Might Guy, when available, coached her taijutsu and physical training to improve those aspects of her skill set. She also spent a good deal of time in the Shinobi library, pulling what resources she could find to improve her overall chakra control, learn new jutsu, and possibly find an additional element that she could train once she got the hang of her water chakra affinity.

This said nothing of her devotion to her medical training, however. She threw herself into it with a vigor that even Sakura Haruno, Tsunade's newest apprentice, hadn't displayed. Shizune was awestruck at the woman's work ethic, having seen that she had somehow crammed and mastered two years' worth of medical theory and jutsu training into eight months! When she had brought Tsubaki's work to Tsunade's attention, Tsunade had approached Tsubaki and offered her additional study material. She also expressed her regrets that she couldn't take Tsubaki on as an apprentice at that time, because one apprentice was already quite a handful, especially on top of being the Hokage. Tsubaki, grateful for anything she could get, jumped at the chance to study Tsunade's material, wrapping her arms around Tsunade on impulse, before remembering herself and sheepishly apologizing. Tsunade waved off her apology, and Tsubaki ended up taking her abilities in medicine and medical ninjutsu to new heights.

Tsunade, at first, was ecstatic about Tsubaki's zeal to learn and master the skills she was being taught. Her joy became laced with curiosity as she saw Tsubaki's drive only grow. Two years into Tsubaki's medical training, the blonde Hokage invited Tsubaki out for a drink again.

Once they were at the bar with plenty of sake to go around, Tsunade began the conversation, "Well, Tsubaki, I can't recall ever being so impressed with a medical ninjutsu student as I am with you. Even considering that Sakura's learning directly under me, and your studies are mostly self-directed, the fact that your skills as a medic have surpassed Sakura's own is nothing short of spectacular. So what exactly is it that's driven you to work so hard since returning to duty?"

"Naruto Uzumaki," Tsubaki responded without shame or hesitation.

"Hmm…" Tsunade pondered, intrigued, "…what about him exactly?"

"Well, he does so much and works so hard for this village, just so that people will acknowledge his existence and treat him with the same respect that the rest of us get as a matter of common courtesy. He deals with so much, and yet he still wants to help others. Iruka Umino once told me that Naruto has a special ability that allows him to befriend just about anyone he crosses paths with…" she trailed off for a brief moment.

"I can attest to that, firsthand," Tsunade admitted.

"But then," Tsubaki continued, "He also has this strange aura of leadership about him."

Tsunade raised an eyebrow at this, prompting Tsubaki to explain, "He inspires others to follow him, simply as a by-product of who he is and the example he sets. He works so hard to protect all of us; I think it's only right that the rest of us do what we can to be in a position to fight alongside and protect him, too."

"I never really thought of it like that…about the leadership quality, I mean," Tsunade admitted, "But you're absolutely right. That is what's been going on with his friends since he left with Jiraiya. I'll tell you, Naruto…he just makes you want to bet on him, you know what I mean?"

Tsubaki nodded, understanding Tsunade's point. Tsunade quietly noted the expression on Tsubaki's face – it was almost wistful. She was wearing an involuntary smile that gave her a faraway look. Tsunade was even able to note the ever so slight blush on Tsubaki's cheeks – even though she hadn't had that much to drink. She decided not to comment on it, but some part of Tsunade told herself that despite how outlandish it might seem at first glance…this woman that had become her friend in the last two or so years would be a good fit for Naruto's life. In what capacity, she couldn't really tell, but she could see that both of them would benefit from knowing each other and being close.

"So, how close to Naruto are you?" Tsunade asked curiously.

"Actually, I don't really know him on a personal level. We've never actually had a conversation."

This surprised Tsunade greatly, and it showed, "Then how is it you seem to know him so well?"

"Just keen observation skills, I guess," Tsubaki responded honestly, "But the more I think on it, it might be more that I'm looking at what's really there, and not just seeing what I want to see…" her tone took on a slight edge, "…it frustrates me to no end how blind people can be. I was blind as well, for a long time, but…I don't know, when I looked into his eyes for the first time, I saw a human being there…and a very lonely one at that."

Tsunade nodded sadly, "I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't even notice that about him until you said something to me that first time we talked. It's funny: I pulled out some pictures that I had of him, and I noticed something – in every picture where he smiles at the camera…his eyes are always closed. It made me think that he's a lot more perceptive than we've ever given him credit for. I always thought it was just him being happy and oblivious, but now…I can't help but wonder if he knew what he was doing in trying to hide his eyes from the world…" she trailed off as she reflected on those images.

Tsubaki just nodded sadly and sighed, before commenting once more, "You know what's funny? Ever since the Chunin Exam Finals two years back…after what I heard him say to Neji Hyuuga after beating him, I've been wanting to talk to him and find out more about him…I just want to know who he really is…"

"What's stopped you?" Tsunade asked, genuinely curious.

"Circumstances, believe it or not," she said with an ironic chuckle, "When I was coming, he was going, or the other way around, and at the times where neither of us was coming or going, it just…wouldn't have been appropriate to have such a conversation. I guess I just came to accept the fact that if I want to have that conversation with him, I'll have to be patient and wait for the opportunity to present itself."

"I suppose so," Tsunade admitted, "But I believe your chance will come."

"I hope so," Tsubaki replied with a smile, "I really hope so."

"I'M HOME, EVERYONE! NARUTO UZUMAKI HAS RETURNED TO THE HIDDEN LEAF VILLAGE!" could be heard throughout the streets, in Naruto's voice, no less!

'He's back?' Tsubaki asked herself excitedly, snapping her head around to gaze in the direction that the great announcement seemed to originate from, 'Where is he? What does he look like now? Oh, I have to go see!'

She wasted no time, taking to the rooftops to quickly find him. After catching sight of him standing atop a post, she gasped. There he was, a good deal taller…and thicker…than when she'd last seen him. And he was wearing the track suit she'd bought him all those years ago, too! She smiled at the sight of his attire, and she couldn't stop the blush creeping across her cheeks at the sight of the boy-turned-man!

"Naruto!" she called out, getting his attention. He smiled as he caught sight of her, jumping off the post onto the nearest roof. He noted that she had discarded the civilian housewife get-up for a much nicer-fitting Leaf Chunin uniform. She landed on the same roof and approached him, smiling and blushing all the while.

"It's you…" Naruto began, as he fumbled around, trying to think of what to say, "…err…hi."

Tsubaki giggled, "Well, hi, yourself! I see the track suit I bought you fits you rather nicely, now."

Naruto gasped with wide eyes as he pointed at her, "You're Tsubaki?"

She nodded, "It's nice to officially meet you, Naruto, and I appreciate you remembering my name from just a get-well card."

"Errm…you too," he replied cheerfully, chuckling while scratching the back of his head, "I didn't know you were a ninja."

"Actually, I had retired from service on the night of the Nine-Tails attack; my husband was killed, and I was left to raise our daughter by myself. I returned to active duty a few weeks after you left for your trip."

"Okay," he said, nodding with a smile, "So how is your daughter?"

Her face fell at that. Naruto immediately noticed and offered an apology, "I'm sorry – if that's a sore spot for you…"

"No, it's okay. You wouldn't have known – she died in the line of duty three years ago."

Naruto's own face fell, "Oh…I'm sorry…"

"Thank you," she replied, "I actually returned to active duty immediately after I was finished mourning her loss. It just…seemed like the right thing to do; it gives me a chance to contribute, and I can also do my part in making sure that what happened to Kasumi doesn't happen to anyone else."

Naruto's lips and cheeks crept slowly upward into a warm, genuine smile at that, "That's good to hear; I'm glad to know you're making the best of something like that."

Tsubaki smiled gratefully and nodded. She then noticed the happy twinkle in his eyes and commented, "You know, you have a very nice smile when you're happy. I hope I get to see that smile more."

Now, it was Naruto's turn to blush, "Err, thanks…" he chuckled sheepishly, "I think that a ninja's uniform definitely suits you more than a housewife's dress does, and I'm glad to see you…like this…" Naruto's flush grew more pronounced when he realized what his compliment must have sounded like.

Tsubaki's own blush deepened at Naruto's clumsy compliment. Seeing that he was about to panic and ask her to excuse his behavior, she responded, "Well, err…thank you."

She had understood what Naruto's intent was, and Naruto seemed to catch that. Both of them stood there, just looking at each other in awkward silence. After a few moments, a third party that Naruto had forgotten all about had broken the silence, both relieving and annoying Naruto at the same time.

"Hey, kid, you won't believe who's down below!" came Jiraiya's jovial bellow. Naruto turned around to see that Jiraiya had come up to the roof. He also noticed when Jiraiya turned his gaze to Tsubaki.

"And who might you be, my dear?" Jiraiya asked, immediately flirting with the honey-brown-haired Chunin that had been engaging in conversation with his pupil.

"Hello, Master Jiraiya; my name is Tsubaki Kenpi, and I was just welcoming Naruto back from his trip with you," she greeted the man before bowing to him.

Jiraiya turned to Naruto and gave a perverted grin, putting his arm around Naruto's shoulders, "Not bad, kid! Not bad at all! This one really is a looker!"

Naruto began to sputter at Jiraiya's blunt and direct "analysis" of the situation that he and Tsubaki had entered.

Tsubaki, being a tactful woman, replied, "Thank you, Master Jiraiya. It's nice to receive praise from such a prestigious and powerful shinobi as yourself."

Naruto face-faulted while Jiraiya's chest seemed to puff out.

"Well, of course, I am the man to make all women swoon everywhere," he bellowed with a laugh.

Tsubaki seemed to adopt a knowing smirk as she continued, "But, as far as male company and companionship goes…" she walked over to Naruto, grabbing his arm opposite the side Jiraiya was on and finished, "…I'd prefer Naruto here to you."

Naruto's face-fault became even more pronounced, a tomato-red blush now covering his entire face. Jiraiya just gave an agonizing yell and started crying anime tears. After a few moments, both Naruto and Jiriaya recovered.

Jiraiya spoke up with a snarky smile, "Well, as much as I would like to leave the two of you alone to continue…engaging each other…" his smile fell as he became a little more serious, "…Naruto, we do need to report back in. Besides, Sakura and Konohamaru are down below waiting for you."

Naruto smiled at that, nodding to his master. Turning back to Tsubaki, he took his leave, "Well, Tsubaki, I hope we get to talk more some time."

She smiled and responded with a nod, "I'd like that. How about we get some lunch or something tomorrow?"

"Sounds good. You like ramen?"

"Yes, I do," she responded with a laugh, "And I can only imagine that you must be biting at the bit for Ichiraku's."

"You'd better believe it!" he responded, "Tomorrow at lunchtime, then!"

She nodded, "I'll see you then, and…welcome back, Naruto."

"Thanks, Tsubaki! It's good to be back."

Naruto jumped down to the street on the side of the building where Sakura and Konohamaru were, while Tsubaki jumped down the other side of the building to the street one block over. Looking at the time, she began to make her way to the hospital to start her shift in half an hour. On her way there, she crossed paths with Ibara, who seemed to be shopping and running a few errands. Ibara stopped with a double-take as she saw her former friend, a woman she hadn't seen since Ami and Kasumi's funeral service. She gaped as she saw Tsubaki, dressed in Chunin attire.

'She must not have known that I returned to active service,' Tsubaki thought to herself.

Tsubaki offered a weak smile and a nod to Ibara. Ibara, in response, cast her gaze down and slightly away from Tsubaki before turning and going back about her business. Saddened for the woman, Tsubaki continued on her way to the hospital…

Naruto couldn't deny that he had changed. He'd had time to think on a few things while he and Jiraiya had been travelling from place to place. He'd had a chance to discuss a lot of life experiences with Jiraiya, who in turn wasn't stingy with him in that department. Both of them were able to laugh with each other at getting tied to the stump at the end of the Bell test. Both of them were crushing hard on girls who would beat the crap out of them simply because they were in the mood to, though unlike Naruto, Jiraiya would admit that it was his perverted leers and antics that would bring Tsunade's wrath upon him most of the time. Sakura, on the other hand, would hit Naruto just because she felt he was getting in the way of her pursuit of Sasuke, or he'd just done something to annoy her, whether or not it was actually her concern.

The more time away he'd had from the village, the more he was able to see certain people for who, and what, they really were. Sakura hadn't so much as left him a get well card when he had come back from the Sasuke Retrieval mission, and even though she tried to cheer him up while he was there in the room, she had mainly come by to find out the full story of what happened to Sasuke. In contrast, a woman who had only seen him on the street a handful of times not only brought him flowers and a card, but a gift as well. When he had thought of these things, his interest in Sakura started to wane rather quickly. He eventually found himself asking what it was he ever saw in Sakura to begin with.

He had grown up. His time with Jiraiya hadn't been without its benefits and lessons. He was able to learn from Jiraiya's own mistakes with Tsunade, as well as from Tsunade's reactions to Jiraiya. Sakura was even more volatile than Tsunade had been, and Naruto came to the conclusion that he would be better off, in many ways, by letting Sakura go. Ironically, he came to that conclusion after he had already let her go unconsciously.

These were the things he had pondered on his way to Hokage Tower with Jiraiya and Sakura. After trying to show Konohamaru his latest pervy ninjutsu, Sakura had slugged him once more. Of course, he would admit that he probably asked for that. Still, though – would it be too much to ask that Sakura not hit him hard enough to break his jaw? After all, it wasn't like he was peeking on her in the bathhouse or something!

He was broken out of his thoughts as Sakura knocked on Tsunade's office door. The three of them entered when the command was given, and from there, he and Jiraiya gave Tsunade an update on Naruto's training…

Tsubaki was waiting for Naruto to show up at Ichiraku's. She had gotten there at Eleven Thirty, just half an hour before noon, so that she could be sure she wouldn't miss him. The more she thought about this, though, the more awkward she felt. What would she say to him? What would they have to talk about? Would he even show up? It wasn't like they knew each other, after all…

"Hey there!" Tsubaki heard from behind her. Turning around, she saw Naruto; he came to meet her, after all! He was also wearing that same smile she liked so much yesterday – that genuine smile that showed he was truly happy. She smiled back, both with relief and with happiness that he was there.

"Hi!" she said right back, "Have a seat! I haven't ordered yet; I was waiting on you to get here."

Naruto nodded and took the stool immediately to Tsubaki's left. The two of them exchanged a few pleasantries before Teuchi came to take their orders.

As Teuchi saw Naruto, he beamed, "Hey there, kid! Welcome back! I had no idea that this fine young lady was referring to you when she mentioned she was waiting for someone! You've gotten a good bit bigger since I last saw you!"

"Thanks, old man! I sure did miss your cooking, though! I would have been here last night, but I wanted to be in bed early enough to make sure I'd be here on time after what Kakashi-sensei just put me through."

"Music to my ears, my boy! So what can I get you? First round's on the house to welcome back my favorite customer!"

Both of them ordered miso ramen, Naruto with his usual additions: fishcakes, a boiled egg and extra barbecued pork. As they received their meals, Tsubaki and Naruto found it quite easy to talk to each other. They started with Naruto's Second Bell Test with Kakashi that went well into the wee hours of the morning…and just finished a few hours ago. Tsubaki shared about her return to duty since he had left the village, while Naruto told her about his adventures with Jiraiya while travelling from place to place, many of which seemed to end with the two of them being chased out of town by angry towel-clad females because Jiraiya just couldn't keep himself from doing "research". Surprisingly to Naruto, Tsubaki found those particular tales absolutely hilarious, especially when Jiraiya couldn't get away fast enough.

After spending time getting to know each other a bit, an ANBU suddenly appeared.

"Uzumaki," he quickly said, "the Hokage requires your presence right away!"

Naruto, seeing the seriousness of the situation, nodded. The ANBU vanished in a puff of smoke at his response. Naruto turned to Tsubaki and began to explain, but she waved him off before he could say anything.

"Missions come first; I do understand," she explained reassuringly, "Listen, most of my time on duty is spent at the hospital. You know Isako, right? In ICU?"

Naruto nodded, prompting Tsubaki to continue, "She can always tell you where I am. So if you want to drop by and talk some more after you get back from your mission, I'll be waiting for you, okay?"

Naruto smiled and nodded, "Well, gotta run! I'll see you soon, Tsubaki!"

"Looking forward to it!"

With that, Naruto left the stand and made his way to the Hokage's office at top speed…

And chapter three! They've finally met, and they're finally talking! I know many of you might be sad about Kasumi's passing, but it serves a purpose in the story. As always, my friends, please review and tell me what you think.

Just to let you all know ahead of time, the updates are going to slow down a little bit. I'm now working to make sure that I have the timeframes of certain events right. I want to make sure I'm giving you guys quality as well as quantity! See you next chapter!